By Tauheedah F. Baker, M.Ed. MPA
Abstract: The million-dollar question in education is how do we increase the academic achievement of minority students, so that we can successfully close the “achievement gap.” This research article provides five strategies that will help answer the question of how to increase the academic achievement of minority students.
Strategy One: deals with pedagogy, and the importance of embracing pedagogy that is responsive to the needs of minority students. It is my assertion that the “achievement gap,” as it has been improperly termed, is not an achievement gap at all. The gap in achievement experienced by most sub groups in our country, is created by a cultural gap that exists between the curriculum and how it is being tested and taught to marginalized student populations. To address and close the “achievement gap,” educators must close the cultural gap that exists within their curricula and teaching practices.
Researchers Mary Stone Hanley and George Noblit define culture as, “a set of tools, perspectives, and capabilities, which students can deploy in the pursuit of learning” (Hanley & Noblit 2009). According to the National Education Association (NEA), culture is, “an accumulation of the ways of being, doing, and sense making of the world that has been developed across generations and social contexts.”
From the definitions aforementioned, it is evident that culture is vitally important if learners are to grasp and make sense of new knowledge and information. As stated, students come into classrooms with predisposed ways of acquiring new information, and making sense of the world. For the most part, American schools are shaped by the culture of students from white, middle-class, cultural backgrounds (Perry, Steele, Hillard 2003). This cultural bias enables the students from this demographic to thrive academically because it makes use of the tools and skills sets that they bring with them to classroom. Conversely, this cultural bias fails to tap into, and utilize, the cultural acumen that minority students bring with them to the classroom. As a result, their academic achievement is stifled and an “achievement gap is created.”
Strategy Two: has to do with school culture. Working from the assumption that school culture can be defined as the guiding beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that are evident in the way a school operates (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1996), researchers have found significant relationships between various factors of school culture, school climate, leadership, and student achievement. There is one aspect of school culture that I believe warrants particular attention if minority students are to be successful academically. This aspect has to do with student-teacher relationships, and a culture of “authentic care.”
It is imperative that schools servicing minority students have a school-wide culture that is grounded in authentic care. In her book, Subtractive Schooling, Angela Valenzuela states that when Latino/a students speak of what they value most about school, the primary focus of their conversation is centered on schools providing a culture of "care." This culture of care must be “authentic.” Authentic care is grounded in compassion, as well as, discipline and high expectations. Authentic care fosters reciprocal relationships among students and teachers, and includes acceptance of the students’ cultural backgrounds, values, beliefs, and ways of being. Valenzuela argues that relationships with school personnel, particularly with teachers, play a critical role in the extent to which minority students feel welcome or alienated at school (Valenzuela 1999).
Therefore, the need for teacher-student relationships that are grounded in “authentic care” is vitally important the overall success of minority students. This authentic care cannot be coerced or pretentious. Students have a weird knack for knowing the teachers whose care is primarily aesthetic, or contrived. This is why the teachers, who have the most difficult time building relationships with minority students, also experience difficulty with managing their classrooms. Students are more likely to be emotionally and intellectually invested in classes where they have authentically caring relationships with their teachers (Phelan, 1992). For minority students, the best way to push these students academically is to build positive, meaningful, authentically caring relationships with them. The evidence of which can be seen.
Strategy Three: focuses on instruction that is student-centered. Student-centered teaching and learning emphasizes the principles of “encouragement of meaningful and deep learning, challenging higher-order thinking, and adaptation to individual and cultural differences” (Cornelius-White & Harbaugh, p.xxv). Student engagement is increased when learning is meaningful, and all students get excited when they can make personal connections to what they are learning. Therefore, the best way to increase student engagement is to make learning relevant by delivering instruction that is student-centered. This means that at its core, student-centered teaching and learning includes teaching practices that are culturally responsive, culturally appropriate, culturally compatible, and culturally relevant (Ladson-Billings, 1995). To be truly student centered, teaching must be sensitive to the cultural practices of students, and must be sensitive to the effect of those practices on classroom learning. It must also respect the language practices of students because language provides a basis for further learning (Bransford 2000).
Strategy Four: has to do with developing the cultural competency of staff. Strategies one through three stress the importance of educators to be critically aware of minority students’ cultures, identity, and backgrounds. However, in order for educators to be successful in this regard, they must develop cultural competency. Cultural competency is the ability to successfully teach students who come cultures different than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive pedagogy (Cooper, He, and Levin, 2011). Cultural competency can be learned, practiced, and institutionalized to better serve minority students, their families, and their communities, and developing cultural competency is the key to thriving in culturally diverse schools (Cooper, He, and Levin, 2011). Cultural competency cannot be acquired as a result of a single day of training, reading a book, or taking a course. Educators become culturally competent over time. However, researchers do suggest some key places to start. Great starting points for developing cultural competency include:
Strategy Five: looks at leadership, and its role in enhancing the learning, and promoting the success of, minority students. Currently, minority students face multi-faceted educational exclusion. Minority students, and their families, are forbade from speaking their language, are not represented in the curriculum, are culturally alienated by standardized tests, are viewed as being apathetic toward education, and have lowered expectations projected upon them. These educative practices are exclusionary, and they have negative implications on the academic success of minority students. In order to reverse them, school and district leadership must become inclusive. James Ryan defines inclusive leadership as a “collective influence processes that promotes inclusion.” He contents that only inclusive leadership can address, and correct, the exclusionary barriers listed above. Leadership can actively promote inclusion by (Ryan 2006):
According to Ryan, inclusive leadership includes as many values and perspectives as possible in the decision and policymaking process. In order for leadership to be inclusive, everyone needs the opportunity to influence what happens in the organization: students, teachers, and parents. In schools and districts where inclusive leadership is evident, there have been significant gains in minority student achievement (Ryan 2006).
Tauheedah Baker is the President & CEO of Advocates for Diversity In Our Schools. She was selected to serve as a 2017 USDOE School Ambassador Fellow, and was recognized in 2011 by the Obama Administration as a White House Community Leader in Education. She is also the 2014 New Jersey Charter School Administrator of the Year.